Monday 19 February 2018

Brendan Fanning: Club stalwarts back for more

Cork Constitution’s Gavin Duffy with Ben Reilly of Clontarf in the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Morgan Treacy
Cork Constitution’s Gavin Duffy with Ben Reilly of Clontarf in the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Morgan Treacy
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Same venue, same teams, and thankfully much the same weather forecast: if we get anything like the same quality as last season's AIL final then making the trip to Lansdowne Road this afternoon will be well worth the effort.

These are interesting times for the club game in this country. The future of Ireland's participation in the B&I League is not expected to extend beyond next season, which gives IRFU performance director David Nucifora the opportunity to make up for ground lost before he landed on these shores.

The cock-up that was the scheduling of the AIL semi-finals to clash with the B&I semis - on top of the Champions Cup semis - illustrated perfectly the lowly position of the club game here. Nucifora can leave a legacy that will last long after he's gone: to give the clubs the chance to fill the space below the Guinness Pro12, for they are already doing a half-decent job of just that, despite being hobbled by the IRFU.

As suggested in these pages before: let the provinces play a home-and-away inter-pro series, and thereafter clear the decks for the clubs to take over. And if the provincial coaches start whingeing, tell them to learn to love the one they're with. They might even find it productive. Certainly the quality of what the clubs are offering currently is worthy of a day in May in HQ, with a bit of sun on their backs.

"It's great, yeah - it's great to get the occasion," says Ben Reilly, captain of Clontarf, who are hoping to become the first Leinster club to win back-to-back titles. "It's the third year in a row having the final here. They (IRFU) took it away for a few years, with a league (finish). People will argue that a league is harder to win. It is and it isn't. There are arguments for both, but I definitely think in terms of giving the league an occasion and keeping everyone interested throughout the year, and getting an opportunity for the players to get a game on TV, get a bit more media interest, all stands to the play-off format."

Clontarf have the advantage of a two-week lead-in since they beat a weakened Munsters - robbed of a handful of starters by Munster 'A' against Jersey Reds in the B&I final - unlike Cons who were put to the pin of their collar in the Bateman final by Old Belvedere last weekend. It's a competition where the Cork club have a phenomenal record, and it was evident in their last stand at Anglesea Road: they defended manfully a five-point lead which would have become a two-point deficit had they caved in. So was that more mentally sustaining than physically draining?

"Absolutely not," says their captain Gavin Duffy. "We'd definitely prefer to have an extra week to prepare for Clontarf. It's hard - like we didn't overlook Old Belvedere at all and concentrated on them all week, and we only mentioned Clontarf after we won the Bateman. There's no question it was a tough game last week. We have an extra day because of the Sunday but still you'd prefer more time."

They were similarly challenged last season, yet finished the AIL final the stronger side, chasing hard a game that had been lit up by Joey Carbery for whom 2016 was a case of fact making fiction look dull.

His opposite number that day, Tomás Quinlan, is back again today, even more important to his side than 12 months ago. Along with his partner, John Poland, Quinlan provides the footballing finish to a big, physical and very direct pack of forwards.

Clontarf, with Mick Kearney making a difference in the second-row, are not without grunt, but Cons would love a close-quarter contest where scrums and driven mauls are the trump cards.

Given both clubs' consistency over a tremendous league campaign, where one point separated the top four clubs at the finish - Lansdowne topped the table but lost to Cons in the semis - whatever they give us should be worth watching.

Clontarf v Cork Constitution

RTé 2, 2.15

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